Articles  •  Britain

Antisemitism past and present

25 May 2016

The recent furore in Labour has renewed debate about the nature of one of the oldest forms of racism

By Jeremy Dewar & Dave Stockton

Religious bigotry is practically as old as religion itself. And Christian religious bigotry against Jews, unparalleled in the Muslim world of the same period, was a feature of the so-called Dark and Middle Ages in Europe.

Based on the idea that “the Jews killed Jesus”, and combined with the “blood libel” that Jews drank the blood of Christian children at Passover, it was used to incite pogroms, to expel the Jews from England, Spain and other countries, to exclude them from most occupations and to confine them to ghettos.

The 18th century Enlightenment, however, saw revolutions in Holland, England, America and France that established the idea of representative government, and gradually liberated the Jews from these medieval restrictions.

Jews became assimilated into all classes of a developing capitalist society. However, anti-Jewish bigotry based on religion survived in the Russian Empire and in the more backward regions of eastern Europe, where democratic revolutions had not yet taken place but whose autocratic rulers were threatened by the prospect of them. The themes of this bigotry merged almost seamlessly with those of a new ideology, antisemitism, that developed later in Western Europe.

Modern racial antisemitism

The term “antisemitism” was coined by the German racist Wilhelm Marr in 1879. Drawing on the ideas of the French racist Arthur de Gobineau and the Anglo-German racist Houston Stuart Chamberlain, Marr linked his virulently negative view of Jewishness not to religion or culture but to race, seeing the Jews as part of a separate race (“Semites”), who could not be absorbed into the white Christian nations of Europe.

This was used to justify a revived persecution of Jews across Europe. The presence, after their legal emancipation, of a significant minority of Jews in the sphere of banking, commerce, culture and the professions was used as “evidence” for the claim that the Jews “controlled” these areas of life.

The far larger number of poor Jewish artisans, petty traders and above all workers were subjected to vile caricatures: Jewish usurers “swindled the poor”; they seduced and “polluted” Christian women; they were mixing and undermining the “Aryan” race.

This phoney “racial science” that antisemitism grew out of was intimately linked with the European powers’ empires in Africa, Asia and the Americas, as a justification for the plunder of the natural resources and labour of the colonies. It similarly demonised as “inferior races” the indigenous peoples of these continents, especially if they came to Europe.

Adolf Hitler combined all these “narratives” into a mass political movement, culminating in the horrific deaths of six million Jews in the 1940s. As a central plank of Nazi and fascist ideology, antisemitism was and remains a mortal danger not just to its direct victims but also to the working class and socially oppressed in general.

The “socialism of fools”

Socialists and revolutionary Marxists in particular were the fiercest opponents of antisemitism practically from its inception. The German socialist Frederick Engels, faced with enquiries about whether antisemitism was “anticapitalist”, wrote in 1890 that, “all it serves are reactionary ends under a purportedly socialist cloak… and we can have nothing to do with that”. And Engels proudly acknowledged what the antisemites regarded as an accusation against the Jews, that they played a major role in the socialist and revolutionary democratic movements.

August Bebel is credited with the famous phrase that antisemitism is “the socialism of fools”. Indeed landowners and capitalists promoted antisemitism precisely to undermine the rise of the modern labour movement, beginning in France (with the 1894 Dreyfus affair) and in Austria (where the antisemite Karl Lueger became mayor of Vienna in 1897). Britain’s first racist immigration law was passed in 1905 to stem the flow of Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia.

The infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a forgery by the Tsarist secret police, which purported to “prove” a conspiracy of Jewish financiers and revolutionaries for world domination. This went alongside a bogus “anticapitalism” that identified the genuine evils of capitalism exclusively with Jewish capitalists like the Rothschild banking dynasty. Liberals, Freemasons and Jesuits occasionally featured in these same conspiracy theories.

This agitation was targeted at those social layers under pressure from big business who were least able to fight back collectively against their real exploiters and oppressors: ruined artisans and shopkeepers, the lower middle class, the long term unemployed and non-union workers who saw Jewish migrants as competitors. The parallel with contemporary racists’ concentration on Muslims, East European migrants and refugees is all too obvious.

The “New Antisemitism”

However, since the early 1970s and especially since the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, Israel’s apologists (both Jewish and non-Jewish) have made the claim that there is a “New Antisemitism”, consisting of the “delegitimisation” of the State of Israel and the rejection of “Jewish nationhood”.

They often cite the wave of attacks on synagogues during and after Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2009 as evidence of this. These were clearly antisemitic attacks, though attacks on synagogues are unfortunately nothing new. However they also often include attacks on Israeli state policy and on Zionism as examples of antisemitism. This is false and self serving. As our article on the subject shows, anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic.

Insofar as antisemitic arguments around alleged “Jewish control” of the banks, the media or US foreign policy and so on occasionally do arise from supporters of the Palestinians, the main reason for them is obviously uninformed and simplistic indignation at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Such reactions are completely wrong and self-defeating, because they target innocent people, they are racist, they harm the Palestinian cause and aid people who foment anti-Muslim bigotry. Indeed, precisely because of the repeated charge of antisemitism that is levelled against it, there are probably few movements that are as self-conscious about identifying and isolating antisemitic ideas within its own ranks as the global Palestine solidarity movement is.

But we should also reject the idea that comparing antisemitism to other forms of racism somehow diminishes opposition to it. On the contrary, it sheds light on how racist ideology works, and therefore on how to combat it.

Thus, while the Holocaust will always rank in the highest category of racist crimes against humanity, we can also see that it is not unique. The millions who perished in the Transatlantic slave trade and on the slave plantations, the near wiping-out of the indigenous inhabitants of Australia and the Americas, the artificial famines brought about by British colonial domination in Ireland and India, and Ottoman Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians do not and cannot in anyway diminish the importance of the Holocaust.

But neither can the Holocaust render them insignificant. The victims of these genocides have a hundred times more in common with each other than with those who try to deny them or exploit them for their own purposes. What they all show is that antisemitism is a part of a wider racist challenge facing all those struggling to create a world where exploitation and oppression are banished forever. If we want to defeat racism, our slogan is not “never compare” but “never forget”.

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